The Box of Books

Was the Box A Continued Conversation?


The box was addressed to one of our Visitor Experience Guides. “We don’t accept gifts for our guides”; we had said this clearly to the person who emailed us to say they wanted to send something. They sent it anyway.

On first impression, the arrival of a box filled with new books was exciting. We are a group who love books—fiction of all genres, histories, biographies, poetry, social justice treatise, bring it on! After initial elation, our feelings shifted to puzzlement.

Each book spoke to aspects of our house tour—an experience that focuses on Harriet Beecher Stowe’s growth into a literary activist. The box included an anti-1619 Project book, a study of censorship, an examination of the harm in political correctness, a testimonial from a Black political scientist that “exposes the true nature of critical race theory.” Each book had a personal note from the guest, explaining that they do not form any opinions until doing full research on a topic.

Why did this visitor feel compelled to send the Stowe Center this box of books that are antithetical to our beliefs?

At the Stowe Center we don’t offer a historic house tour. We offer an experience of discernment, prompted by aspects of Harriet’s life and her ongoing legacy as a white woman who spoke out during a time when inequity was so entrenched that many people thought it was not only normal, but divinely correct. Harriet chose her vehicle of protest carefully—the sentimental novel. She knew if she could make people feel the pain, suffering, abuse of fellow human beings, if she could establish Black people as fellow human beings, she could affect change.

During our tour visitors hear in Harriet’s own words (reenacted in a dramatic recording) the moment she came close to understanding the inexorable pain of an enslaved mother separated forever from her child. This is a moment in our tour when the rawness of emotions is so visceral that many visitors and guides are moved to tears and require time before continuing. This moment that galvanized Harriet to act is infinitely important to the message we hope to convey—each and every person can affect positive change.

Because so many of the issues of inequity and racism from Harriet’s time persist today, we draw attention to contemporary concerns that are connected to 19th century concerns. We frame our tour with the idea of open discussion—what some folks might call civil discourse. We invite myriad perspectives prompted by primary resources from our archive to examine ideas together.

You never know what you might hear. For instance, prompted by a reward poster for a runaway enslaved person, for instance, we might hear this response: “But slavery is over, right?”

As a full staff, we spend time considering questions like this one. How might we get to the heart of what this person is asking or asserting? How do we use historic facts to tie the institution of slavery known in the 19th century to ongoing systems of oppression? We gather information, practice the scenario, critique delivery, and we give our tours, learning and sharing on each one.

Possibly the arrival of the box was a continuation of the conversation we had started? We certainly appreciate that—ongoing exploration of ideas, even those that do not mesh with our current beliefs, is essential to an evolving sense of right.

At the same time, we cannot help feeling the weight of cultural movements seeking to shape public opinion without robust, concrete evidence for the perspectives they espouse. At our site, both our historical interpretation and our contemporary conversations are buttressed by just such evidence—whether that be our own archival materials or data and arguments put forth by scholars and activists whose work has been rigorously interrogated.

We therefore feel confident when we assert that white supremacy was woven into the law and structure of the United States even before the first group of enslaved Africans were brought to the colonized territory of Virginia in 1619. We also respect the work of critical race theorists like Kimberlé Crenshaw and Mari Matsuda, whose scholarship powerfully demonstrates how law, politics, education, and media continue to be shaped by racist ideologies in the present. We are also firm in our belief that language has the power to shape how human beings think about ourselves and one another, and that careful and empathetic use of words can help guide us to a more just world. When we use terms like “enslaved people” on our tours, highlighting the humanity of people of African descent forced into bondage in the United States, we don’t think of this decision as an outcome of the tyranny of “political correctness,” but instead as a choice that adds dignity and compassion to the stories we tell.

Thus, while these books are antithetical to many of our core beliefs, we feel comfortable making them available to staff for careful consideration, conversation, and debate. We invite diverse and opposing perspectives because we know that true critical thinking will always lead us to truths supported by proof.

While an opportunity to revisit and reconsider the sources of our own knowledge wasn’t the gift we were anticipating when this box arrived, it is one that we will continue to accept. We, in turn, get to keep sharing the gift of all we learn.

This blog was written by the Staff of the Harriet Beecher Stowe Center.